So it is almost Opening Ceremony Day for the Sochi Olympics! Widely believed to be the most expensive Olympics yet, the guesstimated $50 billion price tag easily overtakes the cost of the Beijing summer games and is nearly 15 times the cost of the previous Winter Games spend ($3 billion plus at Torino, Italy in 2006).
Regardless how much is spent, the success of the Sochi Olympics will be dependent on the sensational athletic performances from the competitors, perhaps with a little novelty from unusual entrants such as violinist Vanessa Mae (who will be representing Thailand along with their first Olympic downhill racer in the slalom) and the return, after more than a decade, of the world-famous Jamaican bobsleigh team.
Although this may seem a little premature given that the games have not even started, I wanted to talk about ‘the Legacy’ of the Games. The financials, a key consideration of the Olympic games, look unlikely to stack up in favor of Sochi ever breaking even. However, unlike the organizers of most other Games (both summer and winter), Putin and his colleagues never seemed to be very concerned about that. Just like the old-school Olympics, their huge spending spree has been more about proving Russia’s ability to produce top-notch athletes, as well as many other things—and they certainly seem to have achieved that.
Along with a new airport and tunneling for road and rail up to the mountains, the spending on ski areas at Sochi has been truly spectacular. There are no official figures on how much has been spent on developing this spectacular ski region. Where there was just the one fairly primitive ski area a decade ago, there are now four stunning ski centers, which, together, offer around 50 lifts.
We’re not talking drag-lifts and double chairs either. We’re talking lifts that, in many cases, cost tens of millions of dollars each (i.e. giant ‘funitel’ gondolas that are capable of holding dozens of people and, in one case, big enough to hold cars in the event that the access road gets blocked by snow). We’re talking six and eight-seater chairlifts, some carrying chairs and gondola cabins on the same cables.
The resorts have been built by the best international planners, bringing in top management from companies like Vail resorts and four/five-star hotels around the world. Large brands are being recruited to manage the resorts and the lifts have been built by Doppelmayr, along with best-in-the-business Western companies. It’s kind of like building Vail or Aspen’s four Colorado ski centres from scratch in just a few years with a blank canvas and an unlimited budget.
Among the four main ski areas are over 200km (125 miles) of runs. Although at present, different lift tickets are required to ski each one, there are plans after the Games to offer a joint ticket. This would take Sochi straight to the world’s top 50 largest ski resorts (based on size) and probably top 20 in terms of hourly uplift powder.
The biggest challenge awaits those tasked with keeping Sochi on the world-stage after the Olympic circus moves on and starts to look further east to South Korea in 2018. If they are successful at making Sochi as accessible for the world’s skiers as a trip to the Rockies or the Alps is today, then it could quite possibly be this century’s most impressive ski destination in the world by far.